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Becoming A Trusted Business Partner

By Norma R. Montague, Ph.D.; Rebecca G. Fay, Ph.D.; Josh Lobs; and Kenneth Herbst, Ph.D.
November 1, 2022

As you build your management accounting career, developing your self-awareness and harnessing your social skills may be more valuable than you realize.

 

Have you ever considered management accounting as a sales profession and yourself as a salesperson? There’s a constant need in our profession to communicate effectively, to be able to engender buy-in for our ideas, and to build our colleagues’ confidence and trust in our leadership—all key skills of a successful salesperson.

 

Possessing the skills of a salesperson is even more important in today’s virtual workplace, in which much is being accomplished and communicated remotely. By becoming more aware of how you influence others and by harnessing communication skills often attributed to a salesperson, you can have a positive impact on your business relationships and your organization as an accounting professional and enhance your career advancement and earnings potential.

 

The skill set of a salesperson is critical for success in management accounting. The IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) Management Accounting Competency Framework identifies communication skills, motivating and inspiring others, relationship management, and negotiation among key leadership competencies that are needed to collaborate with and inspire others to achieve organizational goals. Further, the International Federation of Accountants notes that a CFO must “be an effective and influential communicator and negotiator” as he or she builds relationships with both internal and external stakeholders (The Role and Expectations of a CFO: A Global Debate on Preparing Accountants for Finance Leadership), October 2013. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) also emphasizes the significance of these communication skills in its list of core personal competencies (The AICPA Pre-certification Core Competency Framework, 2018).

 

As a management accountant and business partner, you have the opportunity and responsibility to influence and persuade external stakeholders in a variety of different situations. For instance, you may have the decision-making responsibility for procuring goods and services from external suppliers and may need to negotiate the best price for your organization. As a management accountant, you may also have to work with your organization’s external auditors to justify your organization’s financial reporting choices and practices. As the person representing your company in an audit, you must effectively communicate your point of view and the rationale behind it.

 

There are also many situations in which you’ll have to negotiate with internal stakeholders. For instance, you may have to work with other managers to agree upon budgets or encourage them to take greater responsibility for the financial performance of their areas. As a management accountant and a business partner, you may also find yourself needing to persuade a member of your team to modify behaviors that may be hurting your organization’s performance or motivate upper management and board members to invest in new resources (e.g., a new accounting system or updated equipment) that will enhance productivity.

 

The very best accountants use well-honed selling and influencing skills that encompass a broad range of components, such as planning, asking insightful questions, handling concerns, presenting value propositions, gaining commitments, and listening. Whether by assisting senior management in its operational decision making or by supervising others who handle the company’s basic accounting tasks, management accountants commonly “sell” aspirational visions, strategies and tactics, innovative ideas, and products for the shared purpose of improving personal and organizational performance. Increasingly, management and finance leaders are the faces of the organization; therefore, influencing, persuading, and negotiating are essential skills for relationship building with internal or external parties (e.g., regulators, banks, auditors, suppliers, and customers).

 

INTERPERSONAL SKILLS

 

One of the primary components of effective selling is developing and refining social skills. Over the course of their careers, accountants participate in numerous meetings, seminars, and continuing professional education (CPE) courses that focus on acquiring and refining technical accounting knowledge. Though often overlooked by accountants when selecting their CPE courses, classes focusing on effective and efficient communication may positively impact your success as a business professional.

 

According to Raffaella Sadun, Joseph Fuller, Stephen Hansen, and PJ Neal, when companies search for incoming C-suite leadership, they prioritize one qualification above all others—strong social/interpersonal skills (“The C-Suite Skills That Matter Most,” Harvard Business Review, July-August 2022). These skills include “a high level of self-awareness, the ability to listen and communicate well, a facility for working with different types of people and groups, and what psychologists call ‘theory of mind’—the capacity to infer how others are thinking and feeling.” These are skills also required of salespersons. For instance, according to Kelley Higney, founder and CEO of the Bug Bite Thing, “A successful salesperson will have excellent interpersonal skills and focus on building authentic connections with their customers” (“14 Essential Qualities of a Good Salesperson,” Forbes, October 5, 2021).

 

As workforces become more diverse, it becomes even more critical to evaluate and assess one’s social skills to better facilitate the exchange of ideas and engender effective problem solving. Furthermore, as highlighted by Sadun, et al., jobs requiring highly developed social skills “have grown at a faster rate than the labor market as a whole—and…compensation for them is growing faster than average.”

 

If we acknowledge that social skills are critical to success in accounting, then how can we best tailor them to our specific professional needs? Companies certainly expect accounting professionals’ technical knowledge to be sharp as a precursor to hiring them to perform services. So how can accounting professionals build on their existing foundation of strong technical expertise so that they’re viewed not only as technically proficient professionals but also, more broadly, as credible, competent, and trusted business partners? A keen awareness of one’s business relationships is an essential first step in improving one’s ability to influence and persuade—in other words, improving one’s ability to “sell.”

 

BUSINESS PARTNERS’ PERCEPTIONS

 

As accountants, we’re constantly being evaluated by our business partners. They’re almost certainly considering how well we’re performing our professional duties, but they’re also, for better or worse, gauging our likability and credibility. Accounting professionals would be well-served by asking themselves, “How am I perceived by my business partners?” and, just as importantly, “How do I want to be perceived by my business partners?”

 

To assist in answering these questions, consider four types of relationships that commonly exist in business partnerships: technical professional, business friend, dispensable business partner, and trusted business partner. Figure 1 illustrates how these relationships come from the interaction of two dimensions of business success; namely, technical knowledge (on the horizontal axis) and social skills (on the vertical axis). Reflecting on the details of each designation and answering some related questions can help you understand which designation you identify with the most.

 

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Technical professional. Morgan knows accounting intimately and has an uncanny ability to cite relevant guidance. Yet Morgan places little value upon—and has little aptitude for—making strong personal connections with his business partners. Morgan often spends his meetings with executives eagerly anticipating their needs, which often precludes him from actively listening to what top management is saying. As a result, the executives with whom Morgan interacts have tremendous regard for his encyclopedic knowledge but perceive him as somewhat unapproachable or aloof, resulting in interactions that are often limited to the “business at hand” rather than to an expansion of business opportunities for Morgan.

 

  • Like Morgan, do you tend to avoid engaging in personal interactions with your business partners?
  • Do you place more importance on providing technical expertise to executives than on investing in individual relationships that may enhance your ability to influence?

 

Business friend. Kendall, who is on the opposite side of the spectrum from Morgan, is heavily invested in the “people side” of the equation. Kendall has put significant effort—with great success—into being liked by his business partners. He always has a funny story and can be reliably counted on to fill out a colleague’s golf foursome. The personal connections Kendall has so carefully cultivated over the years have value, though occasionally at the expense of the technical or managerial side of his business relationships. Kendall has developed a tendency to avoid difficult business conversations in deference to his personal relationships and therefore has lost several opportunities to provide unbiased counsel that could have impacted his company.

 

  • Like Kendall, do you forgo “courageous conversations” to avoid offending those with whom you interact?
  • Do you avoid having challenging discussions or sharing difficult news with top executives, colleagues, suppliers, etc.?

 

Dispensable business partner. Peyton is somewhere in the middle of Morgan and Kendall. She has consistently provided a competent level of service to the task at hand but has never truly excelled either professionally or personally with business partners. Peyton, justifiably or not, isn’t confident in her ability and senses that business partners lack any real personal investment in her. She’s widely viewed by colleagues as providing little long-term relational value, and thus key decisions are often made without her input.

 

  • Like Peyton, would your business partners find that something valuable was missing personally and professionally in your absence?
  • Would corporate executives have difficulty replacing you?
  • Do you think that your conversations tend to remain at a surface level with your business partners, and is your expertise seldom solicited?

 

Trusted business partner. Lakshmi consistently rates highly on both technical knowledge and social skills. She employs an ability to communicate relevant information in a clear, honest, and meaningful way, due primarily to the strong technical skills and consistent professionalism that she’s practiced throughout her career. Trusted business partners like Lakshmi recognize and seek a balance between technical competency, credibility, and objectivity.

 

  • Like Lakshmi, are you viewed as a business partner who goes above and beyond in both your personal and professional dealings?
  • Do your colleagues and corporate executives routinely seek your counsel on technical, ambiguous, or sensitive issues?

 

Each of these individuals has qualities that could contribute to their professional effectiveness. Which of these professionals can you relate to? Consider a business relationship in which you’re currently a partner. How do your business partners in that relationship perceive you? Corporate executives may perceive you to be a trusted business partner, while other colleagues (e.g., those whom you supervise) may perceive you to be a technical professional. Are you surprised to see an imbalance in your business relationships? Do any patterns emerge from which you can make assumptions about how others may view you?

 

BUSINESS RELATIONSHIPS

 

Most of us have room to refine our social skills and business relationships for the better. There are some relatively simple ways to create, improve, or preserve the value that accountants bring to their business relationships. Table 1 contains several important social skills that can improve your impact and influence.

 

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Business relationships have been historically established and cultivated either face-to-face or via phone. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the world in which we live and the relationships with those with whom we conduct business. More business is now being transacted via online modes than at any other time in history. Virtual communications have transformed the business landscape, combining the “personal touch” of face-to-face interaction with the global connectivity previously only attainable by a phone call.

 

Barbara Larson and Erin Makarius discussed the concept of successful executives having the interpersonal skill of “virtual intelligence” (“The Virtual Work Skills You Need—Even If You Never Work Remotely,” Harvard Business Review, October 5, 2018). They found that the ability to set norms for acceptable virtual engagement (e.g., sensitivity regarding optimal times to communicate or discussing how best to share information) is key in virtual business partnerships. In addition, they added that building relational trust (e.g., checking in on clients’ well-being) as well as competence-based trust (making clear how your business acumen will solve the other’s problems) remains important to develop and build enduring business relationships, particularly in virtual contexts. Thus, in addition to the traditional social skills needed to excel as an accounting professional, virtual intelligence is now also essential to an accountant’s success, given first the necessity and now the tremendous convenience afforded by virtual communication.

 

The speed with which business has been thrust into the virtual realm can seem dizzying. The key thing to remember is that, while the medium may have changed, the skills needed to master it largely have not. In a blog post, Todd Kunsman, marketing team lead at EveryoneSocial, noted that the keys to effective virtual selling are essentially indistinguishable from traditional sales principles. This includes, for example, preparedness, sharing materials prior to the call, being effective at reading nonverbal communication, etc. (“Virtual Selling: Strategy Tips to Help You Sell Remotely,” EveryoneSocial, March 16, 2022).

 

These same strategies that have long worked so effectively for sales professionals can also be called upon to enhance accountants’ communications with their stakeholders, regardless of the medium (see Table 2 for communication tips and strategies). That said, the accounting professionals who embrace the strategies outlined in this article, as well as harness the intimacy and connectivity provided by virtual communications, will add tremendous overall value and impact to their business relationships.

 

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To answer the question posed at the outset of this piece: Yes, all accountants are in the business of sales—whether they’re marketing their company, product, service, or simply themselves. It’s much easier to sell ideas, feedback, and outcomes when you’re viewed as a trusted business partner. The best accounting professionals possess the technical knowledge required for the job, but they’re also relationship builders and service providers who understand the need for solid social skills to be exhibited in both traditional and virtual contexts.

 

 

We’re all on a journey to be recognized as trusted partners in our business relationships. Enhancing effective communications, connecting with people, and building trust are some of the most valuable ways an accountant can improve their impact and influence both personally and professionally. When you make a positive impact on people, whether in the same room or virtually, you make a positive impact on business.

 

Norma R. Montague, Ph.D., is an associate professor of accounting and the senior associate dean of academic programs of the Wake Forest University School of Business. She can be reached at montagnr@wfu.edu.
(In Memoriam) Rebecca G. Fay, Ph.D., was an assistant professor at East Carolina University. She was the recipient of the American Accounting Association’s 2016 award for Innovation in Auditing and Assurance Education and the 2015 Scholar-Teacher Award from East Carolina University.
Josh Lobs is the author of the book COMPETE! Increase Sales by Competing with Confidence and has worked in sales, sales leadership, and coaching. He can be reached at jdlobs@yahoo.com.
Kenneth Herbst, Ph.D., is the Board of Visitors Fellow in Marketing, an associate professor of marketing, and the associate dean of the Undergraduate Business Program in the School of Business at Wake Forest University. He can be reached at herbstk@wfu.edu.
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